Cleanup Hits High Gear

Some oil washes ashore, biggest impact may be in battle over drilling. CALIFORNIA SPILL: UPDATE

CLEANUP crews in yellow slickers and black rubber boots have replaced the surfers along miles of southern California beach, forming a human bulwark against the occasional oil that washes up from the state's worst tanker accident in 20 years. Wielding absorbent mops and a determination to help preserve one of the country's most popular coastlines, they are working to soak up any residues that come ashore from the oil still sitting ominously and unpredictably off a large stretch of Orange County.

Skimmers, meanwhile, continue to siphon up what they can from the slick at sea, while others help out where they can.

Lifeguard Claude Panis, who normally watches paternally over the surfers and sun-worshippers on this well-used stretch of sand, is now playing the role of bouncer. He patrols the beach in a red jeep, admonishing people to stay off while cleanup is under way.

``I can't say I'm happy about the spill,'' he says, looking out at waves that would normally be festooned with surfers. ``But it is one of those things that happens.''

Since the tanker American Trader was ruptured by its own anchor last week, disgorging nearly 400,000 gallons of oil into the sea, the empurpled slick has lumbered menacingly up and down the coast. Tugged by winds and currents, it first moved south, then north. Experts do not know where it will go next.

Because less than half the oil has evaporated or been skimmed up, it could continue to pose a threat to the coastline for days, or weeks, to come.

``We're looking at probably two weeks of threat to the coastline,'' says Lt. Jackie Stagliano of the US Coast Guard here.

Oil has washed ashore at various points along the Orange County coast, mainly here and in Newport Beach. Protective booms remain in place at the Bolsa Chica wetlands and the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in Anaheim Bay. The two saltwater estuaries are prime nesting grounds for dozens of bird species, including the light-footed clapper rail and least tern, both endangered.

Although the final toll from the spill will not be known for some time, the damage might have been worse. Favorable weather the first two days allowed cleanup crews to swing quickly into action.

[By early Sunday, the slick was reported to be 12 miles by 3 1/2 miles and centered 2 1/2 miles off the coast between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Some oil was seen as far north as the Long Beach Harbor entrance.]

[A fleet of skimmer boats had recovered about 900 barrels of oil by Friday night, a Coast Guard spokesman said. Eight skimmers were at work and two more were due Saturday. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, continued to pump oil from the 811-foot tanker.

[The accident remained under investigation. The Coast Guard said drug and alcohol tests on the ship's officers, including Capt. Robert Laware, were negative.]

Investigators also now know the anchor that punctured the tanker while it was being moved into position to connect with an underwater oil pipeline (in water so shallow the ship could have struck the bottom), ripped not one, but three holes in the hull. No oil leaked out of the second and third holes.

Mike Murphy, vice president of American Trading and Transportation Company, said divers inspected the hull and made a videotape on Friday.

``There are very, very sharp indents. They almost look like the fluke of an anchor might have done it,'' Mr. Murphy said. ``There's no doubt in our mind that either our anchor or something like an anchor did it.''

More than three dozen birds have been found dead. Two state sport-fishing organizations have filed suit against British Petroleum and the American Trading Transportation Company, owner of the tanker, alleging more than $1 billion in damage to wildlife and beach property. They also allege that the companies held back resources in the cleanup effort.

But the most enduring impact of the spill may turn out to be political rather than ecological. It comes at a crucial time in the nation's energy versus environment debate.

President Bush is expected to decide soon whether he wants to open up new areas off the California and Florida coasts to energy development. Environmentalists and some members of Congress, including much of the California congressional delegation, want the waters off the Golden State permanently protected from oil companies' drill bits.

Also being watched closely is what impact the accident will have on far-reaching spill-prevention legislation now set to be taken up by a House-Senate conference committee. Environmentalists, in particular, hope it will result in a requirement that tankers be designed with double hulls.

Shipping interests believe double-hulled vessels are too costly, and the Coast Guard has expressed concern about explosions in the ships. Nor does the oil industry see the tanker mishap as a reason to curb offshore energy development. It argues that less domestic production means greater reliance on foreign crude, which is shipped here in tankers.

``You are going to have more tanker traffic if you don't have more offshore production,'' says Carl Schmid of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group.

Lessons have been learned from the mishap. More needs to be known, for instance, about the dynamics of ocean currents off the California coast, so experts can better predict what spills will do.

``Science isn't going to prevent accidents, but it could help cope with them,'' says Clinton Winant, director of the Center for Coastal Studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

At the beach here, officially closed like many others in the areas, cleanup goes on amid an anxious but festive air. There is concern that more oil will come ashore but balmy weather has brought out the curious.

Joe Orloff came down with his family - and videocamera.

``I have relatives that call anytime Huntington Beach is on the news,'' he says. ``Now we have a record of this if they want to see it.''

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